Sermon for Easter 4, Year B
Based on I Jn. 3:16-18
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Love….In the New Testament, the word most often used in the Greek is agape. Love these days, has come to mean many things to different people. Our second lesson today however, gives us a clear description of true Christian love. The writer says: "We know love by this, that he (i.e., Jesus) laid down his life for us ~ and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."
The first point the writer makes here is that Christ's sacrificial death on the cross is the perfect Christian example of love. God, in Christ loved us so much that he laid down his life for us. There is no love greater than that. John goes on to say that we, as Christ's followers are called upon to do likewise, to lay down our lives for one another too, if that becomes necessary. Most of us probably cringe a little when we hear that. Indeed, most of us would likely find it very difficult to lay down our life for others. Yet, that's what is required of us by Jesus our Saviour.
The following story illustrates well this kind of sacrificial Christian love. In the movie, Dry White Season, a prominent schoolteacher, Ben DuToi (Donald Sutherland) lives a peaceful, privileged family lifestyle in South Africa without giving much thought about the racist, apartheid system. Then, a son of his faithful gardener named Gordon is shot dead by the military in a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. Gordon then wants to search for his dead son's body, and begins investigating the circumstances of the killing. DuToi encourages Gordon not to pursue the matter further.
Gordon does not follow DuToi's advice, and is eventually arrested, imprisoned, brutally tortured and killed. This motivates Ben DuToi to find out the truth of both killings. DuToi becomes so committed to justice for the black people, that he sacrifices the security of his teaching position, his marriage and finally his life; for the sake of justice, truth and freedom. He loved his former gardener Gordon and the black people so much that he sacrificed his life for their freedom. Such a sacrificial death reminds us of Jesus' own death on the cross, which gives us new life and freedom. His sacrificial love inspires us to follow his example if and when that is necessary.
Our second lesson goes on to develop the picture of Christian love from another angle. The writer says that the Christian Church is An Equal Opportunity Community. A community in which Everyone Has Enough Because The Needy Are Given Adequate Help. The writer asks: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?"
This is a rather disturbing question for us today ~ since we are Christians, yet, we have so many of the world's goods which two-thirds of the world continue to remain, by-and-large, deprived of. We know that in some ancient Christian communities, equality was taken very seriously.
For example, in the book of Acts, there is a reference to the common ownership and sharing of all goods and resources; distributed equally among everyone. As Christians today, this indeed is one of our greatest challenges; to manage, distribute and share the world's goods equally. This is, as our passage points out, not only a political matter, it is also a spiritual matter. For it is in sharing the world's goods with the poor that we meet, love, and serve Christ himself.
Here's a local story, which the Rev. David Rankin here in Calgary told my wife. One day a resident who is not a member of Rev. Rankin's parish, but lives close to the church engaged in a conversation with Rev. Rankin. The man told him that he had been watching him; how he had been giving a lot of food to poor people in the community.
He then offered to give Rev. Rankin some canned goods for this purpose of helping the poor. Rev. Rankin didn't think too much of it at the time ~ expecting that the man would bring over maybe a bag or two of cans. But he was rather surprised, when, one day, a semi trailer drove up to deliver a full load of canned goods! The man had some sort of connection with General Foods, which he approached to make this generous donation.
This is a good example of loving one another by sharing our worldly goods with the poor. As Christians, we cannot be indifferent or neutral towards the poor. We are called to love and help them. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said it very well. He declared that in the war against poverty, Christians cannot be conscientious objectors. We are either working against poverty by the ways we live; or, we are working to perpetuate poverty by the ways we live. According to one statistic, in Canada today, one in five children live in poverty. Right here in Calgary, there are a growing number of homeless people ~ this is happening in the midst of great affluence. As Christians, we are called to turn this situation around. The poor among us are one example of the voice of Christ speaking to us today. In serving and caring for them, we are serving and caring for Christ himself.
The writer of I John goes on to make a third point concerning his picture of Christian love. He exhorts his community by saying: "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." Those two words, little children, are not to be interpreted here literally. The writer is not speaking only to young children. He uses this phrase to refer to the whole flock of Christians ~ people of all ages.
Nor does he use this phrase to put all the adults down. He does not intend this phrase to be derogatory. Rather, little is likely used in the sense that if we as Christians compare our faith; our love; our words; our actions with those of Christ ~ then, we are indeed little. Christ's faith, love, words, and actions are way greater than ours. The word children is likely meant in the sense that we always remain God's children, no matter how old we are. We belong to God and are all part of God's one, big, happy family. In this sense, children carries with it the connotation of our most precious, treasured relationship with our loving God. It is the most important relationship of our lives.
The writer's instruction to love not in word or speech is something of an overstatement. We all need to communicate with words. We all need to hear the words that God loves us and that the members of our family love us. If those words are not spoken, there would have been no Gospel, and probably a lot less Christians today.
Moreover, many people suffer from all kinds of psychological, social, and spiritual problems, if their family members fail to speak the words: "I love you." What the writer likely means here is that those who love only with their words are not loving as true Christians. As the old saying puts it: "Talk is cheap." What the writer is teaching us here is communicated in a popular expression today: "We need to walk the talk." Our words and actions need to compliment one another, not contradict one another.
By combining our words and actions in loving ways, our love is authentic and the truth of the Christian Gospel is able to shine through us. Here again, Jesus has gone ahead of us to provide us with our perfect example of how this is done. It's by following him as our Good Shepherd-Leader; by keeping our eyes focused on him; by listening to his Word; by doing what he has done; in these ways, our Christian love is true. May God grant us the grace to live out the love of Christ each day.
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